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Thursday, April 24, 2008

Virginia v. Moore and § 1983

In a near-unanimous decision yesterday in Virginia v. Moore, the Supreme Court held that the Fourth Amendment was not violated where police arrested (and conducted a search incident to that arrest that found cocaine) an individual for an offense (driving with a suspended license) that is not an arrestable offense as a matter state law. I leave it to Orin and others who know this area to deconstruct the opinion under the Fourth Amendment. I want to weigh in on how this affects my area--§ 1983 damages litigation.

It long has been recognized that a violation of state law by a defendant acting under color of state law is not actionable under § 1983. But several lower-court decisions had gotten around that with the idea based on the notion that when police commit an act prohibited by state law, they necessarily act unreasonably. Thus, consider a case I worked on as a district court clerk and which I use as an in-class illustration. Two Philadelphia Housing Authority officers, whose jurisdiction as a matter of state law is limited only to PHA property, conduct a traffic stop and search off of PHA property; the stop otherwise would have been lawful, since pretty much any traffic stop is, if conducted by these officers on PHA property or by an officer with proper jurisdiction. That seizure arguably violated the Fourth Amendment because it might have been unreasonable for officers to take action beyond what they know to have been their state-law-authorized jurisdiction. At the very least, the claim was cognizable in a § 1983 action and could go to trial. Yesterday's decision seems to reject that notion altogether. The violation of state law merely is a violation of state law, not cognizable under § 1983, and nothing more.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on April 24, 2008 at 08:00 AM in Law and Politics | Permalink


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